Ivan Rakitić: The Overlooked Engine of the Post-Xavi Barça

On 2 March, 2019, Croatian midfielder Ivan Rakitić put in another masterclass in a big game for FC Barcelona, this time against eternal rivals Real Madrid at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. Rakitić netted the only goal of the crucial match with a deft chip over Thibaut Courtois in the 26th minute, and provided both solid defense and line-splitting passes throughout the game to ensure a Blaugrana victory (the second over Madrid in 4 days).

But that probably won’t silence his numerous online critics. I’m sure you can find a million on Twitter. But why? Why does a player who plays with his heart on his sleeve every match, who scored the opener in the treble-winning Champion’s League final against Juventus, who works hard day in day out for the club, get so much hate?

Before the Blaugrana

Keeping the disco dream alive

Ivan Rakitić spent much of his early life in Switzerland, son of Šokci Croats. He came up through FC Basel’s youth system and eventually made it into their main team (funnily enough, Basel and Barça have a long history through Barça founder Joan Gamper).

After a stint in Germany at Schalke, the Croat made his way to Spain and joined Sevilla, a decision which kicked his career and personal life into a new gear. Ivan fell in love with Raquel Mauri, he fell in love with Seville, and the Sevilla faithful fell in love with him.

Rakitić as captain for Sevilla

Over the next 3 1/2 seasons in Seville, Rakitić recorded 34 goals and 31 assists in 149 appearances, establishing himself as one of La Liga’s finest attacking midfielders and one of its most consistent, hardworking players.

Manager Unai Emery (now at Arsenal) rewarded him for his dedication with the captain’s armband at the beginning of the 2013/2014 season. Rakitić led the team to victory over Benfica in the Europa League at Juventus Stadium in Turin, picking up the official man-of-the-match award in the final, as well as winning the LFP’s Fair Play award and being nominated for Best Midfielder (though that one went to his future teammate, Barcelona hero Andrés Iniesta). He finished the season with 15 goals and 17 assists.

Ivan Rakitić had arrived into his prime, in spectacular fashion, but in the Catalan capital, a legendary career was coming to an end.

All Things Must Pass

Xavi Hernández, Sergio Busquets, and Andrés Iniesta embody, to many, Barça’s stylistic philosophy in a way no other midfield trio ever could

Xavi Hernández. Xavi. There is no other player quite like him. Young Brazilian Arthur Melo has recently drawn comparisons, including from the maestro himself, but anyone who watched Xavi play knows that he was truly unique and, partnered with Sergio Busquets and Andrés Iniesta, was part of the greatest midfield trio in the history of football. They could control any game, make any pass, dribble like few others, and made now-Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola’s philosophy come to life. With Lionel Messi up front, and Carles Puyol holding down the defense, Pep’s team remains, to the majority of the Blaugrana faithful, the pinnacle of the Barça style pioneered by the late, great Johan Cruyff. Xavi was in many ways the man who ran the show, controlling possession and dictating the tempo, leading Barça to numerous domestic and continental trophies, as well as playing a key part in Spain claiming two Euros and a World Cup.

But all good things must come to an end. Pep left to manage Bayern Munich in 2012, and his long-time partner in crime Tito Vilanova took over, keeping his style and shaping up to be a legendary manager in his own right, but unfortunately it was not to be. Tito was diagnosed with cancer, stepping down at the end of the 2012/2013 season, passing away before his time at the age of 45. Descansi en pau, Tito. It was a tragic time for the team and the supporters, and signaled the beginning of the end of a golden era.

After Tata Martino’s trophy-less season in charge, in which the Blaugrana watched Real Madrid claim their 10th Champion’s League title and beat Barça in the Copa del Rey final, former Barça captain Luis Enrique was appointed, and it was clear that the team needed a revamp. Victor Valdés never truly recovered from his ACL tear, captain Carles Puyol hung up his boots after a storied career, Alexis Sánchez joined Arsène Wenger’s Gunners, Cesc Fàbregas joined Chelsea, and Xavi, now 34, was in the twilight of his time at the top. His mind was, of course, as sharp as ever, but his body couldn’t handle the playing every game, and, with Fàbregas’s departure, the time had come for a new midfielder to step in.

The Class of ’14

On 16 June, 2014, it was announced that Barça had completed the signing of Rakitić for an absolute steal at only €18 million, and he joined a star-studded list of new arivals, including Claudio Bravo, Thomas Vermaelen, Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, and ever-controversial striker Luis Suárez as the club prepared for an incoming transfer ban.

That 2014/2015 season, of course, has gone down in legend: Suárez joined Messi and Neymar Jr. to form the unparalleled MSN trident, and served as a swan-song for captain Xavi Hernández, who ended his career in the Catalan capital in style as Barça went on to win a historic second treble.

Throughout the season, Rakitić served in many ways as a deputy to the captain, providing a great rotation option and proving himself more than worth the transfer fee. He provided an assist to Munir El Haddadi in his competitive debut against Elche on 24 August, and netted his first goal less than a month later from the penalty spot in a 5-0 win against Levante.

Rakitić at Barça

By the end of the season, he had established himself as a key member of the first team, and scored his first goal in the Champion’s League in a 1-0 victory at the Camp Nou against Manchester City in the round of sixteen, beating a seemingly unbeatable Joe Hart to seal the tie for Barça.

Xavi, of course, could never be truly replaced, but it was Ivan Rakitić who started in the Champion’s League final, scoring the opening goal against Juventus at the Olympiastadion in the fourth minute, slotting the ball in at close range after a lovely build-up by Jordi Alba, Neymar Jr., and Andrés Iniesta. Barça went on to win 3-1. It was Xavi, who replaced Iniesta in the second half, who lifted the final trophy of his second treble, and, with that, the era of Xavi Hernández truly came to an end.

Rakitić finished the season with 8 goals and as many assists, with an impressive pass accuracy of 90.6% in La Liga according to WhoScored, showing that he was a more-than-capable passer of the ball who could match his legendary teammates (Xavi finished with 92.7%, Iniesta with 89.9%, and Busquets with 91.7%). He also averaged 1.1 key passes per game (compared to Xavi with 1.7 and Iniesta with 0.8).

The Super Saiyan Workhorse

Ivan “Goku” Rakitić with fans in Japan (pic: @edgarfornos)

The next two years will always be remembered as the MSN era. Messi, Suárez, and Neymar were simply dazzling. Pure magic from Messi, tricks galore from Neymar, and an always hungry Suárez were simply too good, combining for a record-breaking 131 goals in all competitions in 2015/2016, followed by 111 the following season. What Xavi-Busquets-Iniesta was to the midfield, MSN was to the front three.

Under Luis Enrique, Barça’s style of play changed to accommodate the front-heavy talent. Throughout the campaigns, Barça, once identified by their midfield-focused build-up play, began to bypass the midfield more and more, aiming to get the ball up to the front three, who were all creative forces in their own rights.

Another key change was Lionel Messi’s ever-evolving play-style. Though he had often played as a false-9 prior to the arrival of Suárez, he now played primarily on the right wing. However, Messi being Messi, and constantly improving his passing and playmaking, often drifted around the pitch, dropping deep to help build up play and floating around, linking the midfield and attack. With Dani Alves and Sergi Roberto both being very attack-focused right-backs, the right flank tended to be left vulnerable with the fullback marauding forward and Messi drifting closer to a 10 than a true winger.

As the right-sided central midfielder, it fell to Rakitić to hold down the flank. Though he came to Barça as an attacking midfielder, focused on scoring and creating, his evolution under Enrique is a prime example of the qualities that makes him a firm favorite of every manager he’s played under: his work-rate and adaptability.

Rakitić warming up before the 2015 UEFA Super Cup

Rakitić was everywhere. He had to be. He still popped up with some great goals, actually scoring more in both the 15/16 and 16/17 seasons than he did in his first, including several brilliant long shots that earned him the nickname “Rocketić”, and his pass accuracy remained high, but it was clear that his role was different.

In 14/15, he averaged 1.2 tackles per game. In 15/16, that went up to 1.8 as his defensive duties increased. His interceptions per game also went up from 0.9 to 1.4. His key passes per game went down from 1.1 to 0.9.

It’s clear that Rakitić wasn’t Xavi, and he didn’t have the same exquisite style, but that’s not what he was there to do. He was the engine. The work horse. The man who did the dirty work so Iniesta and MSN could play pretty.

Even though Enrique’s next two seasons couldn’t match the first, with Barça being knocked out in the CL quarter-finals both years and losing the league in 2017 to Zinedine Zidane’s resurgent Madrid, Rakitić continued to do his job, and do it well, proving effective as a disrupter and as an offensive force, even deputizing well as a holding midfield solo pivot when Busquets was unavailable.

The Ant and His Horse

In which Rakitić becomes new manager Valverde’s most trusted of acolytes

When Ernesto Valverde took the reigns in 2017, he had it all to do: Barça had let Madrid retake the title, and watched them win back-to-back Champion’s Leagues, Neymar left for Paris Saint-Germain, captain Andrés Iniesta was in the position Xavi had been in when Rakitić had first signed, and new record signing Ousmane Dembélé picked up a major injury early in the season.

With no reliable true wingers in the squad following Dembélé’s injury and the poor form of Gerard Deulofeu, Valverde made an unpopular (though pragmatic and, in my opinion, necessary at the time) tactical change and switched from the classic 4-3-3 to a sturdier but less free-flowing 4-4-2, utilizing Rakitić as a double pivot with Sergio Busquets.

Rakitić was crucial to the new system. He won Valverde’s trust quickly, and ended up playing a total of 2839 minutes in La Liga (he only once played more league minutes in his career, during a similarly crucial role in Sevilla’s 13/14 campaign). He only recorded a single league goal that year, as well as 5 assists, and an average of 0.8 key passes per game (a far cry from his days as a 10 at Sevilla, once recording 2.9 per game in a league campaign in 12/13 and 2.3 in 13/14).

However, that doesn’t mean he was bad. Quite the opposite, in fact. Barça’s solid defense led them to a nearly unbeaten league campaign, only losing against Levante on the penultimate match day. Rakitić had an average of 1.5 tackles per game and 1.3 interceptions in league play, along with a 90.3% pass accuracy rate. Of course, Sergio Busquets, arguably the greatest holding midfielder of all time, had higher in all these stats (2.8 tackles, 1.6 interceptions, and 90.5% pass accuracy), but that doesn’t mean we should discount Rakitić’s role. Rakitić is far more mobile than Busi, and is able to cover more distance; the two played well off of each other, with the stability of Rakitić taking some pressure off of Sergio and allowing him to play in a slightly more advanced role (at 0.8, Busquets had his highest rate key passes per game in league play since the 2010/2011 campaign and recording 4 assists). Busquets also played 239 minutes less than Rakitić, who held down the fort when his pivot-partner was unavailable.

Unfortunately, the domestic double was, in many ways, overshadowed by Barça’s humiliating 0-3 defeat in Rome which knocked them out of the Champion’s League quarter-finals for the third consecutive season. Coupled with what many fans considered “negative, defensive football” from Valverde and Rakitić’s key role in the 4-4-2, as well as his more understated play style, many online placed a lot of blame on the Croat, unfairly in my opinion. It wasn’t the prettiest of seasons, but we didn’t really have the squad to play Pep-ball and win trophies at the same time. Regardless, the playstyle is certainly not Rakitić’s fault.

From Russia with Love

Proudly representing Croatia in Russia

As usual, when the pressure is on, Rakitić shows up, this time at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Even though he was born and raised in Switzerland, at a time of turmoil in his homeland (Croatia wouldn’t declare independence from the SFR Yugoslavia until Ivan was 3, and the Croatian War of independence wouldn’t end until he was 8), but by the time he broke into the first team at Basel, then-Croatia manager Slaven Bilić was keen on him playing for them, and, after much deliberation, decided in 2007 to represent Croatia on the national stage. Since then, he has more than managed to repay Bilić and the HNS’s faith.

Although Croatia captain and Real Madrid star Luka Modrić has gotten most of the focus for Croatia’s stunning performance in their underdog runners-up campaign, winning the Ballon d’Or for his exploits, it is once again Rakitić who provided the backbone to the team, including slotting in the winning shot in multiple penalty shootouts, letting the pressure roll off him like a light drizzle. But once again, he was overshadowed in the media, though fans of Croatia know what he brought to the table, and how crucial he was.

The Under-appreciated Ivan

“Deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

So, why, despite his endless effort, his humble personality (exemplified in the Player’s Tribune articles I’ve linked to), and his reliability, is he so under-appreciated by many Culés?

Well, as a huge fan of his, I’d say there are a few factors, but timing stands out: he was brought in to phase out absolute legend and utterly unique sportsman Xavi. We knew, as a fan base, that he would never be Xavi 2.0, and that Iniesta-Busquets-Rakitić under Enrique would never be able to replicate Pep’s team (and not just because of age or personnel; football is constantly evolving, and, as the Spanish national team has proved in the years since their Euro Cup win in 2012), but many fans have had a hard time accepting it. It’s hard to blame them completely (Pep’s dream team played with an unearthly beauty), but, in the end, all things must pass. Isn’t it a pity?

But that’s not on Ivan. Even if the past few years haven’t been perfect (though what could, after the Golden Era?), that’s not on Ivan. The tactics employed by Enrique and Valverde aren’t on Ivan. He may not be in the exact same mold as Xavi or Iniesta, but he’s got the passing ability, technique, consistency, devotion, and class to have earned his role in Barça starting lineup. There’s a reason, after all, that all his coaches put their utmost trust in him.

I, for one, am thankful to Rakitić. He’s been a devoted servant to the club since day one, and always puts every ounce of effort he can muster when he dons the Blaugrana shirt. There are rumors that he may leave for Italy or France this summer, and I hope not, but if he does, I certainly hope we can all look back and realize how much he gave to the club, and give him the respect he’s earned.

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